Alabama officials are moving to ban the "felon box" on job applications to increase opportunity. (Illustration by Thomas Baldwin).Birmingham officials are moving to ban the "felon box" on job applications to increase opportunity. (Illustration by Thomas Baldwin).Mark Linn - Staff Writer

Birmingham local leaders are considering a move to ban questions on job applications that ask applicants about their criminal record.

During his State of the City address on Jan. 12, Birmingham Mayor William Bell proposed an executive action to remove the “felon box” on job applications for city employment. The executive action would only apply to the applications for jobs provided by the city, not private employers.

During his address, Bell referenced the “Ban the Box” initiative, a campaign supported by national organizations such as All of Us or None, an advocacy group for ex-convicts and their families, and the National Employment Law Project, a workers’ rights group that, according to their website, “fights for policies to create good jobs, expand access to work, and strengthen protections and support for low-wage workers and the unemployed.”

The “Ban the Box” legislation does not prevent employers from conducting background checks on applicants. Instead, the idea is to delay background check inquiries until later in the hiring process, so that the employer might judge the applicant based on his or her qualifications rather than automatically dismissing those with criminal histories.

The Alabama Prison Reform Taskforce will also consider a proposal to prohibit questions about prior convictions on job applications statewide. This taskforce cannot approve legislation, but it can recommend it to the legislature at large. State Sen. Cam Ward, the taskforce’s chairman, suggests that legislation would be more likely to pass if it only applied to state agencies and not to private businesses.

Advocates for former offenders say that ex-convicts face many challenges in rejoining society even after they have served their time.

“Once you are an ex-convict you have to declare that for all sorts of things,” said Elizabeth Baker, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at UAB. “This affects your ability to get governmental benefits, this affects your ability to get housing, this affects your ability to get Pell Grants and this affects your ability to get a job. It’s not surprising that people don’t want to hire ex-convicts.”

Baker also noted that African American communities were disproportionately affected by job barriers.

Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. In 2014, Alabama incarcerated 820 adults per 100,000 population, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Difficulty finding employment is considered one of the biggest factors influencing the rate of recidivism for ex-convicts. Proponents of the initiative say that job barriers contribute to the high national incarceration rate and act as a drain on the economy and local communities.

“That [recidivism] is definitely one of the biggest problems. Having employment, having intact families, anything that ties you to the community makes you less likely to back to prison,” Baker said. “So it’s in our better interest as a society to have ex-convicts tied to the community.”

More than 100 cities and counties representing 19 states have adopted some form of “Ban the Box” laws, according to the National Employment Law Project.

In its 2012 best practices guidelines, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with enforcing civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, recommended removing questions about past convictions. The “Ban the Box” movement was also endorsed by a taskforce commissioned by President Obama in 2014, which said that removing the questions would “…give applicants a fair chance and allows employers the opportunity to judge individual job candidates on their merits as they reenter the workforce.”

In November of 2015, Obama announced that the federal Human Resources department would delay questions about criminal background until later in the process, and he urged Congress to consider legislation that would apply more broadly.

Many people who have served time find it difficult to reintegrate into the community, and potential job barriers are a major part of that.

“In some communities with a large number of ex-cons they are so common not many people pay attention to the ex-con status. In others the ex-con already feels less than other so is walking around with constant fear of rejection and may do many things to overcompensate,” said a local businessman and former UAB student who was convicted of a felony and wished to remain anonymous. “He or she is going to be sensitive to social situations, concerned about acceptance in every aspect of life from church to dating to getting a job. And… will often be passed over for promotions or have to take lesser paying jobs just to be employed or take jobs nobody else wants.”

“It took quite a while to establish myself and my reputation as an honorable and honest person before I could make headway in life,” the businessman said. “It seriously hampered my ability to succeed. I had to overcome that.”

UAB is also considering a similar proposal to remove questions about about convictions during the application process.

“We are considering the Ban the Box initiative and actively participating in discussions to learn more about it,” said Jim Bakken, the head of UAB Media Relations. He stressed that a decision hasn’t been reached yet regarding the policy.